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Portrait Photography With the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L


Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L
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I was hired to photograph an event recently that was to take place in a dimly lit restaurant. Aside from carrying 2 flash units with me, I decided to rent a Canon 50mm f/1.2 L lens for some low-light non-flash photos. This bad boy is Canon's top of the line 50mm lens and it only costs $30 to rent at Pro Photo Connection in Irvine. Plus, I was able to take advantage of the old trick where you can rent 3 days for the price of 1: rent it after 3:00pm on Friday, pay for Saturday, they're closed Sunday, return it Monday morning.

Canon 50mm f/1.2 L

The lens worked like a charm at the event, but I wasn't about to let the remainder of my short time with this beautiful lens go to waste. So I called up my brother and we conspired to do a little photo shoot on Sunday. My goal was simple. I wanted to really put this lens through its paces by using it in a realistic fashion for which it would be most suited. That means low-light natural-light portraits with the aperture wide open. No side-by-side comparison images, no analyzing color fringing, no looking at MTF charts - none of that useless drivel. I wanted a real-life, practical application experience with this beauty of a lens.

I prefer natural light over artificial light any day of the week. But it has to be good natural light. No direct sunlight on this shoot. I wanted something soft yet dramatic. Something that would bring out the rich textures of denim and highlight the rugged good looks of my brother (yeah, I'm comfortable saying that...), without creating too much contrast for my film to handle. Oh yeah...and I'd only be shooting film. Film with an ISO rating no higher than 160. For the series you see here, I used Kodak Portra 160 on my Canon EOS-1v with the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L. In some soon-to-come posts, I'll also show you  shots I made on medium format Kodak Portra as well as medium format and 35mm black and white Ilford Delta 100 film. I'll be talking more about this in the next post, but this was my first time shooting Kodak Portra and I have to say (and pardon my French) goddamn is this a beautiful film. I finally understand people's obsession with this film stock now.

Now I know that the majority of my readers shoot digital, not film. And that's cool. The only reason I'm pointing out that I shot film here is that I want my readers to understand that you can get great portraits without a ton of Photoshop work! These portraits were done on film, meaning no Photoshop, no Lightroom trickery, nothing. This is how they came out of the camera. I see so many portraits these days that have a dozen different Lightroom filters applied, an extra hour's worth of skin smoothing, the eyes over-sharpened and over-brightened, a cheesy ultra-stylized imitation film look applied...just way too much editing. But I want to show you that all you need is good light and good shooting technique. Find yourself a nice, big, soft light source, then put your model there. Then it's just a matter of knowing how to shoot in manual the right way (interested in learning?).

I'm going to be talking all about how to find good light for portraits in the next blog post, so stay tuned. For this post, I want to focus on the Canon 50mm f/1.2 lens.

I'll give you my straight, un-scientific opinion right off the bat: if I were to buy a wide aperture 50mm prime lens for my Canon DSLR, I wouldn't get the 50mm f/1.2 L, I'd get the Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens instead. Don't get me wrong, the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L is a sharp, well-built, beautiful wide aperture lens, but it's just too expensive and too heavy for my taste. The 1.2L is about $1,700 and weighs 1.3 pounds! The f/1.4 version, in sharp contrast, only costs about $450 and weighs just 10 ounces. A good 50mm prime should be lightweight, small, and inconspicuous! That's half the point of these lenses.

Now some may say, "Yeah, but the 1.2 version must be a lot sharper." I'm sure it's a little sharper...but $1200 sharper? I doubt it. From the side-by-side reviews I've read, it really isn't that much sharper - at least not enough to justify the price and weight. The cheaper 50mm f/1.4 is plenty sharp even for me. What you're really paying for with that extra $1200 isn't so much the glass as it is the weather sealing (you know, so you can shoot portraits in the rain), the tougher build quality (so you can do some portraits in battle), and curved aperture blades. The 50mm f/1.2 has curved aperture blades whereas the 1.4 doesn't. This means that the aperture on the 1.2 actually forms a circle instead of an octagon. Some people make a big stink about how this makes the bokeh (that's the out of focus areas in the background) look better. It probably does in side-by-side comparison images, but again, I really wouldn't say it's worth $1200.

So if you want a beautiful, heavy, expensive, weather-sealed 50mm lens with curved aperture blades, go with the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L. If you want something lighter weight and much more affordable that is still plenty sharp, go with the Canon 50mm f/1.4. You'll only lose 1/3-stop of light on the aperture (which is almost nothing) and you'll just have to live with straight aperture blades - like virtually ever other lens manufactured.

Whatever the case, if you decide to use either of these lenses wide open or nearly wide open, get ready for a lot of blurry pictures. The depth of field is so insanely small at these ultra-wide apertures that once you achieve focus, try not to breath, otherwise your area of focus will shift off of where you want it. I had a hell of a time keeping the focus in the right spot with this lens. Just look at the first picture below for what I'm talking about. The DOF is so small that it doesn't even reach his ear!

Keep an eye out for my next two blog posts talking about finding good natural light for portraits and shooting in B&W.

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L